This is a revised version of a blog published on the Convergence website in February.
What is the Big Society? We were told it was about ’empowering communities’. Cameron says its his ‘great passion’. Steve Moore of the Big Society Network (no I don’t know what it does either) has said it is the sum of a million small things. However, I am finally starting to get it and it seems the sceptics were right all along. It is just a smoke-screen for cuts and now we are starting to see the proof.
Before I go any further I should confess that I am one of those Big Society sceptics and I am also a bit of a lefty, so I am bound to grab any opportunity to score some cheap political points. But all my attempts to get to the bottom of this ‘defining vision’ failed, even when I had the opportunity to question Mr Moore himself (he just got more and more annoyed as I got more and more confused).
One of my big concerns is that there is a big difference between people getting together to run, say, a single mums’ support group once a week or campaigning for a 20mph zone, and making the commitment to take over a library, or even set up a school. We are not all Toby Young and most of us don’t have the time or the skills to take on these responsibilities (and there is also something a bit distasteful about saying enthusiastic volunteers can just pick up when the professionals, eg librarians, lose their jobs). I won’t even get into how I feel about letting parents set up schools all over the place. PS I am a parent.
Equally as absurd is expecting cash-strapped charities to step in where the public sector has had to step back. For years charities, certainly the small, community ones expected to build the Big Society, have been unable to capacity build effectively because grants are always ring-fenced for specific projects. I used to set policy for lottery grants and witnessed the absurdity of perfectly good charities having to reinvent themselves, repackage what they do and fill in reams of paperwork to get their hands on even the smallest amounts of cash. Then, when the project was over, they had to do it all again, possibly even for the same funder. But now there is no more cash…
So maybe volunteers are the answer, maybe Cameron is right, maybe we should expect charities to rely less on money and more on ‘gifts in kind’. I am a trustee of a small legal charity and much as we love lawyers helping us on a pro bono basis, what we really need is money to pay our excellent core staff, not city lawyers giving legal advice in an area they probably know nothing about. It comes back to the professionalism point. Some volunteering can do more harm than good.
I am also fearful that by relying on donations, financial or otherwise, we are unwittingly recreating the paternalistic Victorian philanthropists who chose between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor. Of course, Daily Mail ‘journalists’ and their followers in government will tell you there are undeserving poor (largely, of course, benefit cheats of which I am sure there are millions). But I think the distinction is more subtle than that and worthy of proper attention, not just recourse to a Daily Mail headline.
And now, the campaigning website False Economy, tells us that at least 2,000 charities are facing budget cuts as local authorities reduce their funding. They point out that ‘these cuts are not just to ‘nice to have’ groups, but organisations providing services for older people trying to maintain independent lives, vulnerable children and abused women.’ Cutting their funding doesn’t just cause misery and distress, it only puts pressure onto other statutory services like the NHS. How is that the Big Society?
The Guardian writes today about a Home Start centre in Hull, the 11th most deprived region in the country, losing its £107,000 grant. If it closes, after 25 years, then 167 families with 406 children will be without a service they rely on and that costs just £21 a week for each family. Pretty difficult to see how that could be done any cheaper. How is that the Big Society?
Yesterday, Citizens Advice, which provides advice and support to more than 2 million people, said that Bureaux across the country are facing closure because of budget cuts. It said the situation in some areas was ‘desperate’. Government proposals to remove social welfare and housing cases from legal aid will only exacerbate the situation. So how will the poor and vulnerable get justice? How is that the Big Society?
When I first wrote this blog, I was just a sceptic, but now I am angry. Far from empowering communities, the Big Society and its evil twin Budget Cuts are in danger of ripping them apart. I refuse to believe there isn’t a more responsible way to solve the economic crisis. But then I suppose I am rather missing the point. The Big Society may be a cover for the cuts, but the cuts are the cover for a deluded ideology that bears no reflection on real people’s lives and is happy to cut much of society adrift. If that’s David Cameron’s ‘great passion’ then we are all in big trouble.